The Skeptical Methodologist

Software, Rants and Philosophy

New hire cannon fodder

I recently read Some French Guy’s lamblast of YCombinator, the start-up-firm firm that doles out angel investing to young kids out of college hoping to be the next Google.  Unfortunately, I can’t say I’m surprised at the state of the ‘ideal’ career in software, but I can again reiterate how appalled I am at this frat boy mentality that has infected our culture.

It probably began with Microsoft, but you can see its effect at Apple (notably Steve Jobs’ notorious temper) and I’m sure it’s at Google too (except it’s far more sinister there.)  If you have recently graduated from college with a CS degree, congratulations, your stock options are just behind that Machine Gun nest.

Why these large firms, and now even places like YCombinator continually think the best way to move forward in software is to hire as many gullible young naive programmers as possible and work them to death is beyond me.  It’s pretty well known that 80 hour work weeks and inexperience is a guarantee to continually make the same damn mistakes over and over again.  It’s also an open question as to why new hires let these companies take advantage of them so badly.  Paul Graham had a start up, he begged for angel investing, and his life should show you – what does he do now?  Well he learned from his experience that designing and building is for chumps, to make the big bucks and sit on your ass you become an angel investor.

Kids will work for pennies.  You can continue to fill their heads with dreams of having the next big idea, even though they are carrying all the risk for you.  Junior developers, whether entrepreneurs or otherwise, are being asked to give up their 20’s, probably the best, most energetic years of their lives, to have a chance at making a dent in someone else’s bottom line.  (Make note, the one exception here I’ve seen is 37 Signals :) )

Is it our culture?  A friend told me after visiting Japan that it was a workaholic culture.  It was considered rude to leave the office before your boss did, and the only way your boss got to be the boss is because he stayed the longest.  So they go in at six in the mornings, leave at twelve at night, get drunk at the bar (because you’re expected to go hang out with your friends after work to network) and do it all over again the next day.  The culture sounded familiar.

Junior designers see lack of sleep as a ‘badge of honor’, they see long hours as proof of their worth.  If another developer stays later than you, drinks those extra cans of redbull developing, well then, by God, he’s the best coder alive.  Only that he isn’t.  But he is spreading a lifestyle, through adopting it himself, that is counteractive to real progress at the company and lets face it, quality of life.  If Steve works harder than you, then your PHB(Pointy Haired Boss) is going to expect his influence to make you work longer and longer hours.  This looks good on paper despite the psychologists all telling us that we get no more work done.

We nerds didn’t really grow up playing sports, but we shouldn’t be surprised to find out we’re probably the most competitive people alive.  We’ll constantly try and outdo each other in our quantity of hours put in in an effort to truly see who is the best hacker.  But have we never stopped to think who truly is benefiting from all these hours?  Do we get paid more?  No.  In fact, because many of us are salaried, we’re effectively paid less.  Are we compensated with faster promotions?  Possibly – but don’t forget about that silicon ceiling.  The only person who knows how many hours you’re putting in is probably just the guy above you – but he makes sure to show just how productive his department is (via your hard work) to everyone.  He will always get the spoils.  Who will end up really getting the spoils out of any of YCombinator’s work?  Paul Graham.

We’re the infantry and this is World War I.  The officers, the generals, are actually less knowledgeable of modern warfare than we are because they haven’t seen it.  We see it every day.  We know that hours don’t turn into value, and we know that faster means slower.  Yet, if we’re lucky, they might afford us a moments rest before they order us to charge, bayonets mounted, towards that next machine gun nest.  Our wiser calls to bombard it with artillery, or charge it with tanks, go unheeded.  Those are untested technologies, after all, and anyone who doesn’t charge a Machine gun nest is a coward and doesn’t deserve to be called a hacker.

It’s a class war between the people who know how to get something done and the people who are slowly realizing they play no more role in modern development.   And I really, honestly, want no part of it.

We mere coders are artists, dreamers, idealists.  But we must face facts – we are unnaturally naive, we believe that one day, somehow, our talent will be recognized and rewarded by some benevolent, all powerful manager.  We refuse to work together because we refuse to acknowledge just how bad it’s got.  We refuse to ask for more because we refuse to acknowledge how little we’re getting.  We refuse to stand up for ourselves because we refuse to acknowledge how screwed over we are.  We are the talent, the knowledge workers in today’s economy, and many of us are fearful of our livelihoods being lost to some cheaper person over seas.

Some escape, some make it.  Make no mistake – a coder CAN change the world.  But I have yet to see a coder escape and not turn around and punish the next generation.  It seems that once a person realizes just how screwed over they’ve been, they can’t wait to screw over the next guy.  Like hazing in college.

There’s little I can do to convince you.  Little I can do to change the culture, really, because we are that competitive, and we are that arrogant to believe that we would never be screwed over like this.  We’ll never admit that working long hours has sacrificed relationships, family, entertainment, career development, education.  It’s just ‘a part of the job’.  I can, however, make fun of you for it.  And I think you should do.

So if you take anything else from this, junior developer, it’s that you don’t have to put in that extra 10%.  You don’t have to stay the extra hours to get ahead.  But you can make a snide comment while walking past the cube of the guy who refuses to leave work.  Maybe one day he’ll get it, but until then, he’s machine gun fodder.

[edit: Fixed typos.  Keep my feet to the fire or I'll never learn.  Thanks MichealMichael and Joe.]

August 2, 2008 - Posted by | Software Culture | , ,

29 Comments »

  1. Why do I code?
    First, for fun — I do enjoy programming.
    Second, for time — I wouldn’t want to waste hours with another job in order to eat, so I have to make sure that programming brings me enough money to cover living expenses.

    So, if I enjoy doing a computer-related task, I’ll work on it until I’m tired. If a task is less fun, I’ll do just enough to keep my job. I know I won’t get a raise anyway, so there’s no point in doing anything to try and get it.

    Believe me or not, it took me years to understand that.

    The only thing we’ll ever get out of our hobby, is fun. If you hope for money, become either a sales manager or a politician. A technical job is not for you.

    Comment by Fabien | August 2, 2008 | Reply

  2. Please work on your grammar. You make such good points. It’s a shame some people may not take them as seriously because of misspelled words and improper tenses (i.e. “reiterated” in the first paragraph, wrong form of “it’s” in the second paragraph, etc…).

    Comment by Michael | August 2, 2008 | Reply

  3. I think this applies to so many more fields than just CS. I am graduating with an Electrical Engineering degree in a year, and this is what I have to look forward to. I have had the benefit of several co-op placements however to learn the hard way that this is precisely the problem with many places that appear to be amazing to work for.

    Your suggestion in your closing remarks is not a solution to estabilishing an effective and rewarding workplace. Does anyone have some serious advice about ways of avoiding this self-perpetuating trap?

    Comment by Nick | August 2, 2008 | Reply

  4. The type of person who would take you less seriously due to your grammar is the same type of person who would think they are *supposed* to be working long hours for no pay or that the war metaphor is “maybe a bit strong”.

    Three cheers for fighting social injustice. We gotta stick together or be exploited.

    Comment by Steve | August 2, 2008 | Reply

  5. Michael, please work on your grammar. The proper use of the contraction “it’s” is in the situation where you are taking “it is” and…contracting it. “And I’m sure *it’s* at google too” -> “and I’m sure *it is* at google too.”

    This is what we in the Grammar police industry call, “correct grammar.”

    I agree that concise English is important in an age of high speed Internet postings that can be tossed up without a good proof-reading, but maybe it’d be better to give the benefit of the doubt and just comment, “hey btw you made an error here,” instead of passing judgement on writing ability.

    TFA, good writing, very true! Agree wholeheartedly!

    Comment by Agent Smith | August 2, 2008 | Reply

  6. @steve: i’d argue not actually the case. given that there’s so many idiots on the internet, it’s hard to separate the wheat from the chaff — and grammar is one of those things that i look for to make sure that the person who wrote an article isn’t an idiot. if they’re consistent, good.

    of course, i am an up and coming programmer (maybe more designer), so perhaps your comment is still valid.

    but grammar is important to some people, and if your articles lack it, then you cut out a portion of people who would otherwise read it. i can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t read something because it had good grammar, so best to stay safe.

    in any case, thanks for the advice. i’ll try to remember it.

    Comment by sarah | August 2, 2008 | Reply

  7. Very nice article. Although, I have to wonder if there isn’t a nice medium between working hard and having a lot of time off.

    I’m a civil servant and I basically get paid for my time or I get comp time for all of the extra time. I always try and push myself and create little extra projects for me to learn new things during the weekend as well as read blogs and books which happen to be recommended by the blogs.

    I even have a second job that I work on the weekends programming. I’ve been doing it for the last 8 months. But I get paid well and treated quite well.

    I guess that is the difference between the people in your article and me. I get paid for my time.

    Comment by Thomas Lann | August 2, 2008 | Reply

  8. I’m not sure why you felt the need to mention 37signals as if they were the only company not taking advantage of young programmers. In fact, they are a prime example of a company that promised their under-payed staff the world (Basecamp will be a hit, we promise, and you will get rich off of it) and actually delivered. They all put in a ton of hours on a project they were passionate about and banked some serious cash. Now they are working a 4-day week. This essentially proves that what the young developers of today are working for is most certainly attainable.

    Comment by Mike Keen | August 2, 2008 | Reply

  9. Well, Austin, I pretty much completely agree. The real solution is quite simple, really: programmers should demand comp time and/or (and if possible, or if necessary) an hourly wage. Crunch time is an inevitable part of every programming job, but from what I’ve heard it bizarrely tends not to happen nearly as much when going into extensive overtime involves actually paying your team overtime wages.

    Comment by Eli Gottlieb | August 3, 2008 | Reply

  10. Learn how to spell and use proper grammar.

    Comment by deft | August 3, 2008 | Reply

  11. And then… there are the ones who learned, and are fucking the business.

    I heard a story of a computer programmer who bills $125 an hour, on a 40 week contract, and he tells me he does 10 hours of work a week. So really, he is earning $500 an hour.

    The real issue here is self-value. Stop undervaluing yourself. ASK for the dollars! If you can do that, you are going to be really happy — doing the work you love, and getting paid handsomely for it.

    Comment by Marcin | August 3, 2008 | Reply

  12. Because they can and it is profitable.

    You’re not an economist.

    Comment by Rolleyes | August 3, 2008 | Reply

  13. [...] Wiltshire has a counterpoint to Paul Graham’s article entitled New hire cannon fodder where he decries the practice of "exploiting" junior developers so that a couple of fat [...]

    Pingback by Dare Obasanjo aka Carnage4Life - Paul Graham, Changing the World and "Built to Flip" Startups | August 3, 2008 | Reply

  14. According to their FAQ, at least, YCombinator takes a 2-10% (average 6%) position in their funded companies. 90-98% of the company is, thus, kept by the very guys that are being Exploited By The Man. Outrageous indeed.

    Comment by Thomas Lindgren | August 3, 2008 | Reply

  15. Thanks for your post. I really enjoyed it. I am not a coder but quiet a dummy when it comes to technology. I am a writer and I understood exactly what you said. Ignore the punk and the grammar comments. I had no idea what life was like in your very important, competitive profession. We are such a materialistic, workaholic country. We need to take a lesson from Europe; take vacations, work shorter weeks and spend more time with our families.

    Comment by Tricia | August 3, 2008 | Reply

  16. Regarding the Y Combinator stuff, you (and the “french guy”) are pretty off-base. Here are a few things to consider:

    1) It’s not about “kids out of college”. I don’t recall the mean age, but I know that it’s in the high 20s. Many of the founders in our class were in their 30s. LOTS of them were in really good shape financially. Several had sold little companies before. ALL of them could afford to trade paychecks for equity+risk for quite a while.

    2) It’s not about working 80 hours a week. Sure, we probably put in more hours, but it’s very clear that (for most people) there are diminishing returns after 50 or so (especially if you’re coding).

    Regarding: “It’s pretty well known that 80 hour work weeks and inexperience is a guarantee to continually make the same damn mistakes over and over again. ”

    Business/product innovation often comes from inexperience. And most of the people who I’ve seen succeed as entrepreneurs work hard because they actually really kinda like it (there’s probably a bit of greed/competition there as well).

    I agree with you 100% for folks who have JOBS, though. If you’re salaried, skipping vacation and working long hours as a badge of honor? Pah!

    Comment by Tony Wright | August 3, 2008 | Reply

  17. Marcin hit on the key issue – self-worth, a lesson that goes beyond the programming discipline.

    If you can recognize when you’re being exploited and have the courage to ask for what you’re worth, you’ll be happier no matter what job you’re in until you have the means to work for yourself.

    I’d suggest checking out positivesharing.com for a good blog related to happiness at work.

    Comment by Mike | August 3, 2008 | Reply

  18. Re: [edit: Fixed typos. Keep my feet to the fire or I'll never learn. Thanks Micheal.], ironic that you misspelled Michael.

    Comment by Joe Chung | August 3, 2008 | Reply

  19. Re: 37signals.. “They all put in a ton of hours on a project they were passionate about and banked some serious cash. Now they are working a 4-day week. This essentially proves that what the young developers of today are working for is most certainly attainable.”

    Er. quite the opposite.

    They are famous for doing that precisely because doing that is so _extremely_ unusual that putting in a ton of hours actually turns out a killer product and banks. Everyone talks about it happening to them because it’s so rare that something like that happens.

    If “work a lot and then get rich from it” were the common case among startups, nobody would even make mention of 37signals because there would be nothing unusual about what they did.

    Their example just proves that it is physically possible to do it. That doesn’t mean that it’s normal or likely to happen in any given case. For every 1 37signals, there are 100,000 unremarkable failures lost to obscurity. Hard work is a necessary but not sufficient condition.

    Comment by Paul | August 3, 2008 | Reply

  20. Brilliant piece of writing.

    The red pill for developers.

    My favorite part: “It’s a class war between the people who know how to get something done and the people who are slowly realizing they play no more role in modern development.

    Wait, what time is it? 3:30? I’m going home :)

    Comment by dsynthuhsize | August 4, 2008 | Reply

  21. I could not disagree more. So much so, that I had to respond in my blog:

    http://blog.cmyers.org/?p=9

    You draw an awful lot of conclusions about working for Google/Microsoft – how many months have you worked there? How many people who worked there have you talked to? Do many of your friends work there?

    Comment by Carl | August 5, 2008 | Reply

  22. [...] interesting blog posts followed, including New hire cannon fodder which itself resulted in Dare’s critique of “Built to Flip” [...]

    Pingback by YC is a cult: follow-up — Some French Guy | August 5, 2008 | Reply

  23. I’ve been a programmer nearly thirty years and it still amazes me how put up with work situations no self-respecting union electrician or plumber would stand for. Talk to somebody in “the trades” sometime: they get paid for every hour they work, have portable health care and pensions, and have apprenticeship programs that guarantee a minimum level of competence.

    Comment by Bob | August 5, 2008 | Reply

  24. Bob – show me a union electrician that makes 6 figures with stock benefits and we’ll talk about the validity of your comparison. That’s why programmers make the big bucks – the degree of specialization required is very high, and it takes different programmers different amounts of time to accomplish different tasks, but what is relevant is what you accomplish, not how long it takes. I assert many folks pulling 80 hour weeks are not being overworked, they are not “working smart”. There are exceptions of course, but that’s why we make the big bucks.

    Comment by Carl | August 5, 2008 | Reply

  25. Carl – over the years I’ve had thousands of options: I’ve probably made $3700 off of them. I’d rather have portable health care and a pension over “stock benefits”.

    Employers will take as much as they’re allowed to take. Over the course of a year the work week should average about 40 hours – any more and the employee is being used. Take a salary of $100,000/year for a 50 week work-year. With a 40 hour work week, that’s $50/hour. Work a 50-hour week and you lose $10 per hour.

    Given that we’re actually less effective the longer we work, that may be fair :)

    People *do* need to work smarter, not longer. They also need to train their employers to respect them. Giving work away by accepting an infinite work week is just training them to use you.

    (Note that if you’re actually getting equity, e.g., in a startup situation, it’s a completely different story: you’re investing via your labor, not just exchanging work for pay.)

    (Note also that I said “average” 40 hours/week – their are always crunch times, but they should be infrequent and comped.)

    Comment by Bob | August 6, 2008 | Reply

  26. Bob – Again, our experiences differ. My company offers stock units, rather than options. This means no matter what the stock does (as long as it doesn’t totally tank) your benefits are worth something. It’s financially advantageous for the company to offer part of the compensation in the form of stock (I think it’s a tax thing?), and it’s beneficial to employees because they can just sell the stock to get equivalent cash to what their bonus would have been – or keep it and reap the rewards if the company is successful. When the stock goes up, everyone is happy, when the stock goes down, more people keep it and wait for it to go back up =)

    I agree that at some point a company is “using” their employees, but I disagree that point is “more than 40 hours”. When the employee feels like work is cutting into personal time – when the employee feels their effectiveness going down due to long hours – when a job you used to enjoy becomes a miserable task you dread waking up to every morning – then maybe you are working too many hours. That’s going to be a different number of hours for every employee. Unless the employer is the one demanding the employee work said hours, no exploitation is happening.

    Though I disagree, I think this is an interesting discussion and I respect your point of view. I have less experience in this field so maybe I’m just “one of the lucky ones”.

    Comment by Carl | August 6, 2008 | Reply

  27. Carl – an interesting discussion indeed. It sounds like your employer has found a way to tie your effort to your reward in a meaningful way. Count your blessings!

    There may be so many situations that it’s hard to generalize, so I’ll mention a couple of specific situations I’ve run in to over the years…

    Working for a huge company where the attitude from the top is, “you’re replaceable, all we notice is how long you’re here.” Well, if I’m treated as poorly as a factory worker in terms of respect for my craft and ability I expect to get treated at least as well as a factory worker in terms of getting paid an hour’s pay for an hour’s work. One day 100s of us were told our jobs were going to an Indian outsourcing firm The folks laid off included some very hard-working, smart programmers (not sour grapes – I was one of the few survivors).

    Working for a startup with little cash. I worked for several weeks without pay (eventually paid back after a couple of years) and, when I left, gave up 60,000 valueless options.

    The “factory” job paid much more than the startup. The startup was the best work experience of my life.

    Guess who I worked longer *and* smarter for? Guess which company was more likely to see me in the wee hours of the morning? Hint: it wasn’t the factory.

    I guarantee you’ve heard of the factory, but would bet money you’ve never heard of the startup (which still chugs along as a consulting firm after the attempt to become a software bonanza firm failed).

    I’d rather work hard for little but have my reward tied to the company’s success than work long hours for much money but only stay employed at the whim of an accountant 100s of miles away.

    I’d be interested to know what people here think about the discussion “So what’s better – a great job with average pay or a sucky job with fantastic pay?” at “Wise Bread” (www.wisebread.com).

    Comment by Bob | August 6, 2008 | Reply

  28. [...] to my post on new hires being driven by company culture to simply throw as many hours at a problem as [...]

    Pingback by Convergent and Divergent Thinking « The Skeptical Methodologist | November 16, 2008 | Reply


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